My Hometown in Transition
In the vibration of the memory of my childhood spent on the streets of Ljubljana, I clearly hear the verses, “If you let me go a little higher, the houses of Trieste I will admire.” Of course, I flew a kite, too, but the kite in the poem by Oton Zhupancic, premier Slovenian children’s poet, was not made merely of light paper and balsa wood. In a metaphorical sense it outlined the totality of my childhood horizon.
We lived in a cluster of low socialist apartment blocks beside the river, drab faces of high-rises never quite catching their reflection on the surface of slow-flowing waters. I gazed through the gently swinging branches of the weeping willows along the Ljubljanica River, which today no longer exist, perhaps because Joseph Plecnik, the foremost architect of my country whose work defined much of the Slovenian capital city’s downtown, intended them to stand as a visual illustration for bending washerwomen, an image of the irreversibly-lost past. When I gazed there and tried to imagine invisible worlds in which genuine dramatic adventures took place that would be worthy of my longings, never satisfied with the simple reality at hand, I really saw the Italian town of Trieste, with its large harbor and the sea’s promise of infinity. It is not that as a child I had already but a limited conceptual framework that was according to the force of necessity shaped by the meager financial means of my parents and the political restrictions of “soft” communist Yugoslavia, the country in which we lived. Because of such restrictions, even a trip to nearby Trieste literally meant entering a different world. I don’t have the limitations of this kind in mind, although I don’t deny their force. I have in mind my acceptance of evaporating, having never completely disappeared, and ever-so-fragile memories that are anchored in childhood, permeated with primordial images, images of the past. Who would not want to understand them? It is the artistic vision that so often feeds on the lost paradise of childhood, because symbolic archetypes were formed in it that govern the perception of the present moment. I try to miss as few opportunities as possible where this can be seen at work: how the archetypes confront the present use of time and orientation of space. Such opportunities come to light in playing with and caring for children.
I have three; for all three of them, the Slovenian of their father and the American English of their mother are equal though their usage alternates according to the immediate suitability of the vocabulary and the flexibility of descriptions. And so, they run in the garden together with Zhupancic’s kite and through the refrains of “London bridge is burning down” from the English song and “itsy bitsy spider” from the American help the sun dry the spidery thread stretching above other roofs and toward other bridges. My children’s horizons inevitably reach farther than Trieste. They are spontaneously doubled, the potential for the possibilities of biographies and desire is expanded, and the symbolic topography of their world is more extensive. The view of the fecund surroundings and the feeling of boundless power in the eternal return of the sun rays are – I am increasingly sure of it – simply pillars supporting the frail architecture of the soul. And just as the soul needs landscapes of freedom to prepare carefully enough for the certainty of pain and potential grace of knowledge, the doubled identity reaches in many directions, hastily opens the doors to unknown rooms, retreats, and seeks always others because – extraterritorial as it is – its connection to only one dimension is fading.
First experience of a metropolis
I was born in Ljubljana with its narrow streets and the modest embarrassment of its facades that “dreamed in German,” as I say in my book of poems Anxious Moments. I grew up here, its schools gave me my university education, my departures abroad began here, and along the ring of bourgeois mansions below the squat castle and on the banks of the lazy river I ultimately measure – almost against my own will – the experience of the pulsating architectural, cultural, and social force-fields that confuse people in foreign cities. This is to say that, at least for me, the archetype of a city springs from the earliest experiences of something that for a long time represented the only model of the urban rhythm, from Ljubljana.
My first experience of a “metropolis” is Yugoslav, however. I imagine that I still remember the excitement of entering new territory, even though half a life separates me from the first encounter: like the full lips of a slightly vulgar but immensely sensual girl, the streets of Belgrade seduced me with promises of romantic possibilities and emerging familiarity with the Balkan wisdom, of which the “fin-de-millennium” will recoilingly remember only the military insanity of Serbian nationalist megalomania. It comes to us through the veil of hopeless powerlessness in the face of the catastrophe of ethnically clean identities that Belgrade orchestrated in the wars of the disintegrating Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, I still remember quite well my first climb from the railway station through the canyons of already faded palaces, which, I was later told, architecturally imitated the gorge of Sutjeska that was the site of a famous partisan battle against Nazis half a century ago; up to the broad Terazije Avenue; down that boulevard, enjoying the colorful relaxation of flaneurs; walking past the Moskva Hotel, where the aging doyen of Serbian letters, writer Milosh Crnjanski, lived until his death after having returned from decades of emigration in the British Isles. I am not sure, but perhaps it was because I was first astounded by the depressive force of the condition called “exile” in the pages of his bitter Novel of London that I did not stay in America when many years later I followed the call of foreign countries under the promising sky of student adventures. There’s no point in feigning ignorance or, worse, a politically motivated amnesia: I was fascinated by this city. It embodied everything that Ljubljana was not. Belgrade gave me my first experience of a dangerous and exciting cosmopolis, which with its mixture of oriental and occidental customs persistently remolded various personalities and traditions, stitching them in the vivid, if anguished, patchwork of self-confidence. This was a particular “way of being” that Vienna, for example, could not give me, nor did I really expect it from that Hapsburg city, even though it is historically, socially, geographically, and possibly mentally closer to the Slovenians as the seat of the royal family that more or less continuously ruled much of Slovenian lands in the course of last five centuries. Aware of the limitations of their home place, urban characters in Slovenian feature films fled to only as far as the Adriatic sea coast, from where they gazed longingly toward distant foreign worlds; meanwhile, the unshaven and city-smart youths from Belgrade brazenly boarded the legendary Simplon Express to conquer Paris. This narrow flash of artistic metaphor alone suggests how limited Ljubljana’s spiritual horizons are.
Specifically, Ljubljana has no significant tradition of cosmopolitanism that could filter down from the extremely thin layers of each new city elite to the broader masses that live here. However, after the initial depression, in the face of which I longed for other rivers and other castles, this absence of a cosmopolitan tradition in some way set me free. It took me a long time to realise that if Slovenians have no cosmopolitan tradition and the creative self-confidence that accompanies it, one must create this sort of mythology himself.
Ljubljana, which only became a capital city a decade ago with the independence of Slovenia, that is, in the sense of being the seat of an independent nation-state, lives in me – a bastard of Gutenberg’s galaxy – through an older, even ancient perspective of creative imagination, namely through the increasingly idiosyncratic selection of literary chapters outlining the symbolic iconography of space in which – a grand ambition for a birthplace, I admit – all cities manage, if for a blink of an eye, to recognize themselves.
After all, poetic sensitivity is given birth in a deeply intuitive conviction that city walls mark the last boundary of the known, that in some way an individual city is the entire world; that the true place worth living in is a kind of transcendent “imago mundi.” To be at home in a city where the sky and the earth meet, is therefore existentially real; to be at home in a city offering a primeval, emotion-charged, adventure-filled, and thus fundamental experience of a place; to be at home in a city where everything has its names, the magical cartography of a handful of squares, three or four key streets, and the anonymous corners of the provincial nest that is the capital of my intimate world since it mimics the dwelling place of the gods – this cartography persistently follows me down the boulevards of foreign metropolises where the longing for “something else” repeatedly draws me to try unsuccessfully uncovering the “same” with the painful delight of passing time. In short, I am searching for a primeval place that has the meaning and weight of the archetype.